Sorting the Sunday Pile: Browns bandwagon stalls out, Dak Prescott stakes claim for Cowboys cash
Looking at the biggest storylines from the week that was in the NFL
Expectations have never been higher and reality has never been lower for the Cleveland Browns. Making the playoffs was the minimum expectation for this team -- ask anyone in or around the city and team. Sunday was a coronation of an offseason spent accumulating talent and the kickoff for a nine-month party that might even end up with the Browns messing around and winning a Super Bowl. Week 1 against Tennessee was supposed a freebie at home.
Turns out the Titans actually care about winning football games too. And Tennessee put a whipping on Cleveland Sunday, all those giddy Browns fans prepared to hop on the bandwagon and ride into a glorious, Lombardi filled sunset.
That bandwagon wasn't just leaking oil, it had a flat tire. Maybe two.
The first NFL Sunday is in the books and there's a lot to go over. Fortunately Will Brinson, John Breech, Ryan Wilson and Sean Wagner-McGough are here to break everything down on the latest episode of the Pick Six Podcast. Listen to the full show below and be sure to subscribe here.
A casual observer could look at Cleveland's roster and viably ascertain this team would take off like a rocket to start the season. But there should have been concerns here. Notably, the offensive line. John Dorsey cut starting left tackle Greg Robinson the week before the season started. It was, as many Browns fans pointed out, procedural. But they still did it, knowing no one would claim him.
Robinson would be ejected on Sunday against the Titans, but Baker Mayfield was already under pressure before he left.
Mayfield was terrorized by Cameron Wake, as the borderline senior citizen registered 4.5 quarterback hits and 2.5 sacks blitzing off the edge for Tennessee. On one sack of Mayfield, the second-year quarterback was brought down for a safety and appeared to suffer some kind of injury to his hand. He would be spotted later leaving the stadium with a "soft wrap" on his throwing hand.
Losing Mayfield for any amount of time would be devastating to the Browns' season.
Cleveland had arguably the best trio of offensive talent -- Mayfield, Nick Chubb and Odell Beckham -- in the NFL coming into this game, but it was the Titans who looked better at each of those spots. Marcus Mariota was sharper at quarterback. Derrick Henry was far more dominant at running back. And rookie A.J. Brown balled out in a big way for Tennessee in his debut, while Beckham remained quiet.
The Browns' revamped defensive line got pressure on Mariota, but not enough to justify the hype it received during the offseason. Tennessee averaged 6.1 yards per play, and rookie OC Arthur Smith simply outcoached Cleveland DC Steve Wilks.
Freddie Kitchens' crew did not look disciplined either. I'm a big Kitchens fan. But one of my concerns with Cleveland before the season was having a first-year head coach. Robinson kicking someone in the face? Not a great look!
There's a lot flying at Kitchens right now, and a 30-point blowout at home in Week 1 is only going to ratchet up the pressure. Both he and Mayfield seemed to understand thatabout the struggles of the offense.
As of Sunday, it has been 5,474 days since the Browns last won a Week 1 NFL football game. Their last victory involved Jeff Garcia playing quarterback for them in 2004. Maybe, as Delanie Walker so eloquently noted after the game in channeling his inner Denny Green, the Browns are who we thought they were.
There's plenty of time for that. It's just one week. The Browns can easily bounce back from this loss next week when they travel to play the Jets in New York for a prime time game featuring two teams who caught a dose of reality. The Jets lost their own tough game to the Bills, gagging up a lead and self-applying some pressure as well.
But they have the advantage of being at home. The Browns won't have any such luxury. In fact, Cleveland will spend three of their next four weeks on the road. They draw the Jets, come home for a primetime game against the Rams, then travel to Baltimore and to San Francisco after that. There is a non-zero chance they lose all those games. And that would make things decidedly Browns-ian for a franchise that believed it was about to flip the script on the AFC North.
Pay up, Jerry
Man, the world has really spilled some invisible internet ink talking about whether or not Dak Prescott deserves to get paid by the Cowboys. The one thing Dak could do in order to snuff out any chatter and just get a fat bag of cash from Jerry Jones? Go out and win big this year.
Prescott got off to an outstanding start on Sunday afternoon, helping Dallas swat the Giants away like a one-winged (circumcised?) mosquito with an eye-opening performance. Dak went 25 of 32 for 405 yards, four touchdowns and a perfect passer rating. What stood out more than anything was the approach new OC Kellen Moore took with distributing the run and pass. At halftime, Prescott had 26 passing attempts, the same number of rushing yards that Ezekiel Elliott had.
Dallas was up 21-7, but the lead felt far more comfortable than that, and it was obvious to anyone watching they were about to put their foot on the gas and smother the Giants. The Cowboys' first lead of the game came when Prescott hit senior citizen Jason Witten for a touchdown on a play that was beautifully designed by Moore. It was play action by the goal line with Witten leaking out after faking as a blocker. This is the stuff you just didn't see from Scott Linehan, and it caught the Giants completely off guard. Everyone sucked in to try and stuff Zeke, and it gave Dak a wide open look to Witten.
Moore clearly has a modern approach to the game: he's willing to pass first to take the lead and run to win (versus establishing the run), and he isn't shy about maximizing the efficiency of play action.
Having a good, motivated quarterback helps. And Dak was letting it rip down the field too. He hit Amari Cooper for this strike of a touchdown late in the second quarter to extend the Cowboys lead.
He looked extremely comfortable with second-year wideout Michael Gallup, someone I would target on your fantasy league's waiver wire if he was out there for any reason. He has breakout written all over him in this more aggressive Moore offense.
Dallas needs to lock him down so they can franchise tag Amari Cooper and/or Byron Jones. Dak would be doing them a favor if he signs now. Based on what we saw against the Giants, I'm not sure he should settle.
Hello, Mr. Jackson
When John Harbaugh puffed out his chest and declared the Ravens offense would be unlike anything the NFL had ever seen, plenty of skeptics -- yours truly included -- scoffed at the notion. Were Harbaugh and Greg Roman going to unleash some new offense, heretofore unseen by a sport that's been operating for multiple decades?
Turns out what Harbaugh might have meant is that this offense is just going scorched earth on everyone. Lamar Jackson's debut in 2019 was as good as it gets. And yes, it was against the Miami Dolphins, but the quarterback finished 17 of 20 for 324 yards and five touchdowns, helping the Ravens drop a 50-burger in South Beach.
But the most shocking number? Jackson only rushed the ball three times. The Dolphins respected him potentially running the ball, but they had zero answers for Jackson and rookie Marquise Brown (a.k.a. Hollywood) in the passing game. Jackson became just the seventh quarterback to complete 85 percent of his passes, throw for more than 300 yards and also throw five passing touchdowns in the same game. You can refine the numbers and put him in an even more special territory:
His accuracy down the field should be alarming for opposing defenses.
And his weapons are a problem too. Brown is a burner, the first receiver taken in the 2019 NFL Draft, and if he's already comfortable in the No. 1 receiver role for the Ravens, that's going to be a huge boon to Jackson. Mark Ingram looked like a perfect complement in the running game and will see bigger holes once Jackson starts running himself.
Mark Andrews was fantasy darling for part of the offseason and he looked the part on Sunday, with eight catches on eight targets for 108 yards and a touchdown.
This game was out of hand extremely early. Like, it was 28-0 early in the second quarter and 42-3 (!) at halftime. The possibility of an 80-burger lingered, but Miami wasn't interested in trying to compete. It left time for Robert Griffin III to enter the game and handle mop-up duty (including the touchdown pass to Andrews) and it let Jackson relax on the sidelines and cook up zingers to use in his postgame.
Not bad for a running back.
I believe the pejorative position was actually wide receiver, but you get the point. I was initially skeptical about how the offense would work in Baltimore if Lamar was forced to run all the time, but I came around on the idea of this being a playoff team despite some attrition on the defensive side of the ball. The Ravens just picked up an easy W without Lamar having to run, and I think it's worth noting we should be including Jackson in every convo about the quarterbacks from the 2018 NFL Draft class.
He was the youngest player to ever start a playoff game in NFL history last year. His athleticism and arm talent (it's a phrase that's overused but it applies to Lamar) give him unlimited upside. And he entered last season in the middle of the year, forced to run an offense that was designed for Joe Flacco. .
No one expects him to put up these numbers every week. Miami isn't on the docket anymore. But the Ravens will be able to vary their offensive approach using Lamar's legs. With the woeful Cardinals defense up next, why would Lamar slow down?
Speaking of the Cardinals ...
I don't what to say about Kliff Kingsbury's debut. I really don't. In the fourth quarter, with the game in hand and the Lions winning -- comfortably, 24-6! -- the Cardinals had 100 yards of total offense. We'd been told that Kingsbury and Kyler Murray had kept things vanilla in the preseason, playing possum, and were about to unleash on the NFL once the action started.
That was not happening. Kingsbury kicked another field goal with 11:09 remaining in the fourth quarter to cut the lead to 24-9 and it really felt like he'd just completely given up. The offense was stagnant, the Lions were dominating and Kyler had been sacked by J.R. Sweezy, who is, rather unfortunately, his own offensive lineman.
And then, well, something happened. I don't know if Matt Patricia just kind of checked out because Kliff kicked the field goal, or if the Lions players all assumed the game was over, but all of sudden the Cardinals were about to get the ball back and were within eight points. I swear it happened without anyone realizing.
Darrell Bevell was basically trying to kill the clock, so the Lions managed to put up a three-play, seven-yard drive that used up two minutes and 17 seconds (punt) and an eight-play, 32-yard drive that used up three minutes and 26 seconds (punt). Arizona responded by ripping off two drives that took up less than four minutes off the clock and went 125 total yards in just 16 plays for a pair of touchdowns.
It's what we thought the Air Raid could do. The Cardinals just needed the Lions to quit caring (?) for it to work. Detroit checked back in enough to almost end the game, but Patricia called a timeout right before Matthew Stafford executed a perfect play action pass play to ice things. Stafford was not happy, spotted screaming "TRUST ME!" on the sideline. He's not wrong either.
Kyler got the ball back, went the length of the field for a touchdown and two-point conversion, cashed the over and helped the Cardinals cover +3 in very surprising fashion. The game would go to overtime and almost unsurprisingly, end in a tie. It probably felt like a win for the Cardinals, but definitely not for the Lions.
There were a pile of gaffes here for the Lions -- the timeout by Patricia, Danny Amendola not stepping out of bounds in overtime, conservative playcalling on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. And it's brutal for Detroit too because their schedule only gets harder from here: they draw the Chargers, Eagles and Chiefs before their Week 5 bye. Ruh-roh.
Arizona is going to remain an enigma. Was what we got out of Kliff and Kyler late the real offense? Was it really just those guys getting comfortable? Can they uncork that for a full game against a team like Baltimore? They're going to have to if they want to keep up.
Some of the flashes we saw from Kyler in overtime reminded me of him playing in college.
Whew. That is a dime down the field. And he actually finished with decent stats, posting 308 yards and two touchdowns. A lot of it felt like garbage time, but it can't be garbage time. One of the NFL's biggest mysteries somehow got more mysterious after a full week of action.
Bill's best defense?
The Patriots demoralized the Steelers on Sunday night, beating them 33-3, the only points for Pittsburgh coming on a white flag field goal from Mike Tomlin. Everyone is freaking out about the Steelers, and understandably so. Ben Roethlisberger looked confused, held the ball too long, was recklessly chucking deep balls and generally looking the way I feel on Sunday night after I eat a bunch of pizza and drink IPAs all day.
That's my MVP, in case you cared, and no I'm not that worried about it. Ben will get his at some point. What we saw from New England on Sunday night isn't about the Steelers struggling to score. It's about the Patriots being one of the best teams in football. Again. Time is flat circle, etc.
What makes this Patriots team different than most, though, is Bill Belichick appears to have already gotten his defense in tip-top shape ahead of the year. Usually Belichick's guys round into shape around halfway through the season, or even start peaking once the playoffs come around.
On Sunday night the Pats absolutely locked down every single one of the Steelers' weapons. JuJu Smith-Schuster got an early reception, but that was all the action he'd get. The Pats smothered him with double coverage, forcing Ben to look elsewhere, and the Steelers were wholly unprepared.
The bigger problem for Pittsburgh might be their defense, but it's largely irrelevant to the discussion here: with Tom Brady holding a ton of weapons and squatting on Antonio Brown in his back pocket, the Patriots offense is going to be outstanding. If they have a defense capable of keeping an offense like the Steelers out of the end zone, there's a decent chance the Patriots have 16-0 on the table again.
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